Note: Some of the quotes in this article are also found in my book Asatru—A Native European Religion.
This version of “The Gods and Their People” was revised on January 2, 2021.
In The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, Dr. James Russell writes that there are two kinds of religions. One of these he calls the universal (or revealed, or prophetic) religions, in that they purport to be an answer for all mankind. Examples are Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as new religions ranging from Scientology to Self-realization. Each claims to offer some form of salvation to anyone who (1) is initiated into the religion and (2) adheres to certain moral and doctrinal codes. Ancestry, ethnicity, tribe and tradition are irrelevant; in fact, they can be obstacles to enlightenment.
In another category entirely, however, we have what Dr. Russell and other scholars call folk religions. They do not claim to be for everyone. Rather, these religions or spiritual paths are followed by specific communities — usually, in today’s world, indigenous or native groups. Spirituality is seen as arising from the life of the community itself. The Gods are considered relevant only to that particular group, not the property of all mankind. Practicing the religion usually means being born into the tribe or indigenous nation. Ancestry, tribe and nation, or what Dr. Russell calls “ethnocultural identity,” is more important than doctrine.
Today, the world is dominated by the universal religions. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are the biggest ones, and folk religions are largely ignored. Universalism is so ingrained that most Westerners wouldn’t even understand the concept of folk religion unless it was explained to them. We think we can shop for religion like we shop for a political party — or a car or a dress, for that matter. Our materialist, consumer-based, “shop till you drop” ideology has taken control even of our spiritual life, and we assume that the religion and folkways of every group are ours for the taking. This attitude is a modern one, and would have been unthinkable even within much of historical time. To project our twenty-first century attitudes on the practices of tens of thousands of years is chauvinistic arrogance on a grand scale.
In historical terms, universal religions are a very recent phenomenon. Buddhism goes back to a mere 600 BCE; Christianity and Islam are even younger. (The monotheism of the Hebrews goes back to around 1300 BCE to 1000 BCE, but it is not clear that Judaism is a universal religion. Yahweh was originally the God of one people only — the Jews — and even today there is disagreement about whether outsiders can or should convert to Judaism.)
Was it any different among the White folks? Well, let’s look at our oldest known religious roots and see what we find…
The Germanic peoples share cultural and genetic ties with the other members of the broad Indo-European family — a grouping that includes early Vedic India, the Greeks, Romans, and Celts, among others. Throughout this constellation of cultures, the various tribes, city-states and nations overwhelmingly considered their relationships to their ancestors and Gods to be unique and proprietary.
Let’s say that again, just to be clear — “unique and proprietary.”
In ancient India, for example, no outsider — not even a close friend — could be present during the daily offerings at the hearth. Aliens and those of low caste were not allowed to hear certain verses of the Rig Veda sung. Offerings were made to the dead only by their descendants; the ancestors did not want the honors of those who were not of their blood.
Compared to the vast span of time in which humans lived in tribes or other relatively small groups, the universalist idea is a very new onet.
Plenty of people refuse to consider allowing access to their native faith by outsiders, even today. Take for example, American Indians. (While I sometimes say “Native Americans,” I often say “American Indians” out of respect for influential American Indian activist Russell Means, who insisted on using that term — and no one can accuse him of being a sellout to his people!)
Let’s take a look at what the tribes say —
American Indians and Folk Religion
God is Red, by veteran Indian activist Dr. Vine Deloria, affirms the validity of his own people’s folk religion in terms that leave no doubt where he stands. Deloria, now a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says outright that “Most tribal religions make no pretense as to their universality” and that in fact that “Most probably religions do not in fact cross national and ethnic lines without losing their power and identity. It is probably more in the nature of things to have different groups with different religions.”
It is this awareness of the innate link between a people and their Gods that informs one of the most significant issues in Indian spirituality today — the all-pervading presence of a new “tribe,” the Wannabees. These are non-Indian, overwhelmingly European-American, men and women who want to adopt or adapt bits and pieces of Indian religion. Peace pipes and smudge sticks are sold in New Age book stores, and dream catchers are even more ubiquitous; they clutter the checkout counter at truck stops and convenience stores across the country. Non-Indians make big bucks sponsoring sweat lodge experiences, drumming sessions, and vision quests. Perhaps the worst abuses are the sun dances done on Astroturf, and the sex orgies conducted under the guise of Cherokee tribal ritual.
In 1993, five hundred representatives from forty tribes and bands of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota nations met in conference and issued a “Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.” They demanded action against “all persons who persist in exploiting, abusing, and misrepresenting the sacred traditions and spiritual practices of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people.” Some activists are turning New Agers away from sacred sites, overturning their teepees, and passing out fliers denouncing cultural genocide.
Doug George, former editor of the Mohawk newspaper Akwesasne Notes, recommends a more positive approach. In an interview in New Age magazine (“A Theft of Spirit?”, August 1995) he says: “If you look far enough back, you’ll find that the Celts and the Anglos [sic] and the Saxons and the Jutes all had similar rituals of thanksgiving based on the cycles of the moon and the growing seasons of the Earth. That’s what needs to be revived. Maybe we can use this as a kind of spiritual judo. When [non-Indian] people come to you with a desperate need to know more, just turn that around and say the solution is within your own self. The solution is in your own community.”
Bingo. And that’s exactly what a Sioux elder told a friend of mine — “You need to drink from your own well.” And, of course, he’s right.
Why all the furor in the first place? Because aware elements within the American Indian community know, instinctively, that their religion is something that belongs to them, and they see its adoption, or distortion, by outsiders as a form of genocide. Like members of folk religions around the world, they buck the universalist trend and declare that there is an intimate connection between ethos and ethnos.
Or, as Vine Deloria puts it, “The idea that religion was conceived as originally designed for a specific people relating to a specific god falls well within the experience of the rest of mankind and may conceivably be considered a basic factor in the existence of religion.”
Somewhere in the boxes containing my correspondence over the decades, I have a letter — email? — from Dr. Deloria, who has long since gone to his Ancestors. I had written him regarding my plan to revive Norse/Germanic religion. As I wrote in my book Asatru — A Native European Religion he responded thusly:
Thank you for the letter and the materials on ASATRU.
I applaud this movement and your organization for taking the initiative in bringing back the traditional European religious beliefs and practices.
[Referring to “wannabees”] To tell you the truth, these New Agers just look silly even when they try very hard to perform Indian ceremonies. I have always felt sorry for them. It would be like me dressing up in Roman Catholic cardinal’s costumes and swinging pots of incense in the air. But they are very hard to discourage, particularly when American culture teaches that if you are sincere, you can do anything you want.
I will certainly refer people to your organization.
Good luck with your endeavors. I hope your movement grows so we don’t have so many part Cherokees hanging around our communities.
With best wishes,
Vine Deloria, Jr.
Here’s a toast to you, Vine Deloria. I wish we could have met; I think we would have had a good time.
Unfortunately, is seems that only the Indians — as well as revivals of African religions which are “helping American Blacks connect with their Blackness,” and apparently some Jewish groups — can get away with an an ethnocentric approach or, as we would say, a “Folkish” doctrine.
When people of White European descent try to do exactly the same thing, the media – under the evil spell of money-making outfits like the Southern Poverty Law Center – cry “racism,” “White supremacy,” or similar emotional slurs designed to stop all higher mental functions.
It’s a lie, of course, but that’s never bothered them.
As for me, I support and respect ALL ethno-racial groups who wish to practice their native religions, and their right to keep them exclusively for themselves.
May their respective Gods smile on them!